As university workers vote in a ballot on UUK's latest offer, Lee Jones explains why they should vote no and how the campaign to reject the deal can win
In my previous posts, I’ve explained at length what is wrong with UUK’s latest offer in the USS pensions dispute, and why UCU was wrong to rush to a ballot of members on it. In this post I summarise the case for voting to reject the offer and make some suggestions about how the vote can be won.
Why vote “no”?
There are two basic reasons.
First, put simply, the deal isn’t finished yet, and we cannot trust UUK to act in good faith on their vague pledges. The latest offer from UUK was not even agreed by universities before it was emailed to UCU members — and they subsequently added a new condition: the ending of industrial action. The vaguely-worded offer leaves crucial issues lacking clarity. Will the process of re-valuing USS through a Joint Expert Panel (JEP) will be meaningfully supported by the USS Trustees and the Pension Regulator (tPR)? Subsequent signals from the Trustees suggested not, while tPR has only made vague noises. At worst, this could mean the proposed cuts (or something similar) being imposed, with the JEP only able to affect the next valuation, in 2019. A side-by-side comparison of the rejected #NoCapitulation offer with the current offer shows striking similarity, with a strong possibility that UUK will push for the #NoCapitulation deal as an interim “solution”.
Most importantly, UUK’s commitment to maintain a “broadly comparable” defined benefits (DB) scheme, while an improvement over their initial attempt to destroy DB altogether, remains too vague. UUK called their first offer during this dispute — the “agreement” rejected on 12 March to the cry of “#NoCapitulation” — “meaningful defined benefits”. They even described their destruction of DB as offering “broadly comparable outcomes”, and that involved 40–75% cuts to our pensions. Until these issues are nailed down, we would be fools to abandon our industrial action and trust that UUK will deliver what we want. It is the equivalent of the UK government triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and beginning the Brexit talks without actually knowing what it wants — the initiative naturally passes to the better organised side. UUK have proven, time after time, that they cannot be trusted. Unless they make specific, binding commitments, they cannot subsequently be held to them. They will instead grind down our negotiators (with Sally Hunt already showing herself willing to capitulate on poor terms) and we will probably end up with a deal close to that which we have already rejected once — but end up both poorer (due to pay deductions) and weaker (due to a discredited union) than before.
A secondary reason to vote “no” is to strike a blow for internal union democracy. UCU General-Secretary Sally Hunt is simply misleading members when she states that the majority of branches wanted to put this offer to a members’ ballot. My analysis of branches’ positions, using notes taken by a delegate, showed that only a quarter of reps favoured this. A further quarter wanted more reassurances first, while about half wanted to “revise and resubmit” the offer. Officials blocked a vote on the matter, presumably because they feared losing. The Higher Education Committee was then prevented from debating the issues and considering a “revise and resubmit” approach, with a rushed vote producing a very narrow (10–8) margin favouring immediate balloting. This sort of manipulation of members, branch representatives and elected officers is completely unacceptable in a democratic organisation, but it has happened repeatedly, most recently in the 2014–15 pensions dispute. It leaves members — especially active ones — demoralised, confused and angry. Voting “no” will say to the officials behind these manoeuvres that we will not stand for this any longer; we are starting the process of taking back control of our union.
The challenge created by the leadership’s shenanigans
Sadly, these manoeuvres leave UCU in a difficult position. The strike has mobilised workers in unprecedented numbers, quickly broadening beyond pensions to issues of pay, equality and diversity, casualisation, and marketization. The membership is riled up like never before. Nonetheless, the push to vote “yes” from the national leadership will naturally take its toll. Many members, particularly the more passive ones, may see little beyond the General Secretary’s emails and, not understanding the situation well, perceive no reason to doubt their assurances or her recommendation to vote “yes”. Some members may be tired and impoverished after a month of strike action, and worried about continuing or escalating further (which UCU’s guidance will advise, menacingly, will be necessary if we vote “no”). Others, perhaps especially the most recently engaged and “riled up” ones, may be confused, disheartened and angry: they thought we were fighting for more than this, but now “everyone” (the “majority of branches”) seems to want to give up. They will naturally feel demoralised and fear being isolated. Finally, to be frank, many academics are basically apolitical liberals who want to see the best in everyone; they instinctively dislike talk of factions and machinations, and call blandly for “unity”; at least some of these members may be inclined to vote “yes”, just to avoid “division”. It goes without saying that most of these problems have been created by the leadership’s anti-democratic antics.
So how to win the argument?
These people in the middle — not those who have already made their minds up — are the members who need to be won over. This is an obvious point, but easy to lose sight of. Those of us agitating on picket lines and social media are probably not the ones who need to be convinced one way or another. For the broad membership, I’d suggest five simple messages.
1Voting “no” only means “no, not quite yet”. Voting “no” does not mean rejecting compromise or striking until UUK crumbles into dust. This is not a wacky or “radical” position — it’s actually a conservative one, trying to defend the status quo through reasonable, sensible measures. It’s our opponents who are the radicals — trying to radically downgrade our pensions. Moreover, “no” is not a final rejection — we are simply saying “no, not quite yet” — because a few key things still must be locked down before we are willing to demobilise.
2There is appetite nationally to continue the fight; you are not alone. The process leading to the ballot was flawed, and Sally Hunt is misleading you when she says a majority of branches favoured a ballot and, by implication, accepting the deal. Only 25% of branches wanted this. The rest all wanted further reassurances or more substantial revisions to the text. A clear vote among branch reps was blocked, and HEC was also prevented from debating the issue and voting on different options.
3Remember why we went on strike: because we are sick of being shafted by our employers. Since 2009, we’ve had a 15–20% real-terms pay cut; two pension cuts; and then another proposed. Taken together this would represent a cut in living standards of about half — unprecedented for any UK profession. Meanwhile we face spiralling casualisation, workloads, mental health crisis — but mega-bucks for VCs and mindless expansion projects. We have to draw the line, because enough is enough.
4Remember what we already rejected. The signs are that UUK hopes to secure a final deal similar to the one we rejected in mid-March. Now, they vaguely promise “broadly comparable” DB. But they called the deal we turned down “broadly comparable” as well. If you rejected the first offer, you need to reject this one, too. Until the terms are properly nailed down, UUK will try to stab us in the back.
5Momentum is on our side. Employers have moved enormously, from cutting DB entirely to saving it in some form. This is due to our power: our strikes, our action short of a strike (especially the resignation of external examiners), and the threat of further escalation — plus strong support from our students. It’s also because the strike has unleashed our anger about the degradation of HE more generally, and our bosses fear that universities could become ungovernable as we withdraw our additional, unpaid labour permanently and demand deeper changes. Furthermore, UNISON is now balloting to join us on strike; combined with UCU, this would truly paralyse universities. We are in a good position. One last push is enough to get what we need. The technical constraints and regulatory deadlines emphasised by some people should not trouble us; they are not absolute constraints created by nature or god; political action can shift them. UUK will be desperate to avoid further unrest, so we can reasonably expect them to add to our pressure. Even if the Trustees and tPR do play hardball (which I doubt), and impose cuts, we can fight to reverse them.
In the longer term, we need to tackle the lack of internal union democracy that has created this situation in the first place. But that’s a subject for another post.
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